Today, I conducted a professional symphony before a packed auditorium. If you find that surprising, you may be shocked to learn that this was greeted with applause from the audience!
[People told me business school would be a transformative experience. They were clearly not kidding.]
This was the second day of the week long Ross Leadership Initiative experience that kicked off our first year at Ross. The venue: the gorgeous new Blau Auditorium at Ross. The audience: 300 of my fabulous classmates. The guinea pigs: a dozen talented, professional symphony musicians who agreed to be led by amateurs like me.
How does conducting a symphony teach you about leadership, you may ask? In a very unique, powerful way. Picture this – the symphony is seated backs to the audience, so that you, the audience are part of the symphony. This lets you pay close attention to your leader – the conductor – and understand at a very elemental level how people take leadership cues from someone. Today, we were in the very capable hands of Laura Jackson (www.laurajackson.net), Director of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. “It takes only about a minute and a half for the orchestra to size up the conductor, and decide whether to accept him or her as their leader,” Laura said to us. “Leadership in this setting is about confidence, presence, and the ability of the leader to engage every member of the team he or she leads”. From the moment Laura entered the auditorium we could see the musicians sizing her up. But from the moment she picked up the baton, to the moment she closed the classical piece they played, you could see was in complete control of her team.
Of course, at Ross, mere demonstration is not enough. Action based learning, remember? The purpose of this two hour session was to put us students up on the podium so we could experience the leader-team dynamic for ourselves. Before I knew it, I had volunteered myself to lead the symphony. After a two minute conducting lesson from Laura, there I was, baton in hand, about to conduct a classical piece I didn’t know the first thing about, with professional musicians who I probably couldn’t control, in front of an audience that did not know what to expect. The first try was, let’s just say, highly educational. I was too intense – the musicians picked that up, and felt constrained by the “micro-managing” way I conducted them. We didn’t sound very good. With some feedback from Laura, I eased up on the second try, and let the musicians have their “space”. I didn’t so much lead as 'guide' the musicians. My motions set the pace, but did not dictate how they should play. The result sounded much, much better. The musicians knew it, and the audience knew it.
So what did I learn at Ross today? Very simply: when you have a team of great performers, don’t hold the reigns too tight. Let them play. And that applies to work, play, and everything in between.
What made this experience even more amazing was watching a dozen other classmates try their hand at it, and observe how leadership styles varied across the class. I was impressed by the quality of this educational (and fun!) experience, and was grateful for the opportunity to conduct a real symphony. All in day’s learning here at Ross!